A new novel, funny, wise, moving, true, as only Lisa Alther can write ("she had me laughing at 4 in the morning" --Doris Lessing), set on a cruise ship, about a woman, a doctor in charge of the ship's clinic, recovering from the loss of her longtime female lover, a much-admired writer, and coping with the high-wire madcappery of cruise ship life as she reckons with her past and feels her way into the future.
Dr. Jessie Drake, in her mid-sixties, following the sudden deaths of her parents and Kat, her partner of twenty years, has fled the Vermont life she has known for decades.
In an effort to escape the oppressive constancy of grief, she accepts a job from an old flame from her residency in New York City's Roosevelt Hospital, and agrees to assist Ben as the ship's doctor on a British liner. Jessie boards in Hong Kong, and, as the Amphitrite sails throughout Southeast Asia and the Middle East, cruise ship antics ensue. Jessie is lulled back into a long-ago romance with the ship's co-doctor, and both she and her new/old beau become enmeshed with the ship's lead (female) singer/entertainer. Among the passengers who fling socialized behavior aside on the high seas: a former Florida beauty queen (Miss Florida Power and Light) on a second honeymoon with her husband, as she causes high-velocity scandal, while juggling onboard affairs with a suicidal golf pro, and a defrocked priest hired as one of the liner's gentleman hosts, until she vanishes--poof!--from the ship off the coast of Portugal . . . As the ship sails through the Gulf of Aden and into a possible hijacking by Somali pirates, Jessie retreats into her lover's journals, written during her final months, journals filled with sketches of potential characters, observations on life and love--as well as drafts of a long new poem in progress, "Swan Song," that seems to be about being in love with someone else, someone new. As Jessie's grief turns to suspicion about the woman she thought she knew so well, her illumination of the poem's meaning begins to lift the constraints of the past and make clear the way toward the future.
Alther (Original Sins) strains for comic effect in her latest, a story about a latter-day ship of fools. Jessie Drake is a 60-something Vermont physician who gets over the death of her longtime lesbian partner, Kat, by taking a job as a doctor on a cruise ship. She is recruited by a former lover, Ben, the ship's head doctor, who makes it clear that he still carries a torch for Jessie despite the fact that she is gay. Ben is soon sleeping with Mona, an opera singer who provides shipboard entertainment. When Jessie and Mona become friends, they form an extremely awkward triangle with Ben. Alther also casts an eye on fellow passenger Gail Savage, a former Miss Florida Power and Light, who carries on with a crew member right under the nose of her husband. Over the course of the voyage, Jessie has to contend with the death of one passenger, the disappearance of another, an attack by pirates, and the rescue of a boatload of refugees, all the while dealing with the nagging suspicion, gleaned from her late partner's journal, that Kat might have been unfaithful. While the disparate plot elements don't quite cohere amid the cartoonish set pieces, Alther makes Jessie a winning and funny travel companion\n. Unfortunately, this voyage goes nowhere.